April 2018, arsenal cinema

Time and memory: The cinema of Terence Davies

DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES, 1988

Time and memory are central elements of Terence Davies’ films. The British director was born in 1945, the youngest of 10 children. His childhood was overshadowed by his father’s violence and a repressive form of Catholicism. His understanding that he was gay was associated with feelings of shame and guilt. His works explore these experiences, from the early very autobiographical films to his later literary adaptations. The past and present are tied together in a unique fashion and the characteristics of memory, which is fragmentary and erratic, connected to emotions, music and individual people, are accommodated. Davies does not talk about the life of his protagonists as a chronological sequence of events but more as a thickly-woven rug of dreams and needs, encounters and disappointments. Caught up as they are in their own lives, the protagonists cannot escape their past, just as Davies’ films are not interested in linear narration. Long, still shots, associative montage and flowing transitions provide the aesthetic equivalence of this specific form of of exploring time. Arsenal will show all eight of Terence Davies’ feature films. We are very pleased to welcome Terence Davies on April 5 & 6.

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (GB/USA/F/Belgium 2000, 1. & 7.4.) In her late 20s and still unmarried, Lily Barth (Gilian Anderson) appears to be in control as she makes her way through New York’s high society at the turn of the 20th century. But she is actually in an unstoppable downward spiral. Instead of entering a reasonable marriage, she dreams of love and romance but her gambling debts plunge her into a disastrous situation of dependence. “Like Wharton, Davies observes the precision mechanics of conventions through a microscope and dissects the upper class’s instrument of power that Lily Bart innocently falls victim to. Glances, gestures and words set a mill in motion that constantly and mercilessly crushes the soul of a woman who, just for a second, allowed herself to dream of freedom.” (Alexandra Seitz)

THE NEON BIBLE (USA/GB 1995, 2.4.) is set in a provincial backwater in the American south during the Great Depression. The life of the young David, whose parents struggle to keep their farm going, is dominated by poverty and violence. The most important reference in his life is his aunt Mae (Gena Rowlands), a failed singer with an aura of glamor who returns to the family. The men in this world communicate through violence, threats and religious promises. In his first adaptation of a foreign work, whose motifs are astonishingly similar to those of his early films, Davies contrasts dreamlike imagery and nightmarish events. The film begins and ends with David sitting in a train, escaping his family and its conditions of dominance. An escape whose outcome remains unknown.

THE DEEP BLUE SEA (GB/USA 2011, 3.4.) Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) abandons her boring husband and a comfortable middle-class existence to live with the young pilot Freddie. Her love for him is not reciprocated however, so she finds herself “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” between two men, neither of whom provides the happiness she once hoped for. Davies uses dark and muted colors and cramped spaces that reflect the protagonists’ feelings to stage an intensive Kammerspiel about loneliness and unrequited love based on a play by Terrence Rattigan.

THE TERENCE DAVIES TRILOGY (GB 1976–1983, 4.4.) began as three independently shot mid-length films connected in terms of subject matter (CHILDREN, MADONNA AND CHILD, DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION). They use concentrated montage and a merciless but sympathetic gaze to tell the story of Robert Tucker’s life. His path from tortured schoolchild to adult, who hides his homosexuality and is riddled with guilt, until his lonely death as an old man do not show a maturing but a lifelong suffering which only finds deliverance in death. The form is as radical as the contents, using stylized black and white images and an often static camera to tell the life of a suffering man with scraps of memory and chains of associations.

DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (GB 1988, 5.4., in the presence of Terence Davies) Family scenes, held together by songs sung at the pub and in the living room: In this kaleidoscopic, non-chronological portrait of a working-class Liverpool family of two daughters and one son in the 1940s and 50s, music expresses what the protagonists cannot - overwhelming joy and immeasurable pain at once. Alternating between still, tableau-esque pictures and dreamlike tracking shots, time seems almost to be frozen and the photo of the once violent but now dead father on the living room wall (which is of Davies’ own father) shows clearly that childhood experiences can last a whole life.

A QUIET PASSION (GB/Belgium 2016, 6.4., in the presence of Terence Davies) The US poet Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886) only published a handful of some 1800 poems that she actually wrote. Though she lived a remote life in her family home in Amherst, Mass. her poems are evidence of a broad vision and rich inner experiences. In this film completely devoid of kitsch, Davies traces Dickinson’s development from a young woman who talks with wit and sparkling intelligence about politics, religion and the role of women to one who withdraws gradually from the world because of a lack of ties and intimacy. He creates a powerful portrait of a woman (played fantastically by Cynthia Dixon) who fights for her passions but struggles with the futility of her fight - one with absolutely no pathos that is at the same time deeply moving. Off screen, Nixon reads the poems of Dickinson which are thus given their own space.

THE LONG DAY CLOSES (GB 1992, 8.4.) Cinema as a work of memory: For his film, Davies returned one last time to the world of his childhood - 1950s working-class Liverpool. The film is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Bud, who feels secure in the family, listening to his mother singing, observing his older siblings with their friends or going to the cinema with his sister. The days are endless; the soundtrack ranges from Mahler, to Nat King Cole to Doris Day. Davies later said in interviews that he was never happier than during the time after his father’s death before he started secondary school. There is a feeling of melancholy throughout: Despite his current happiness, Bud senses that he will soon be expelled from this paradise.

SUNSET SONG (GB 2015, 9.4.) The painful coming-of-age story of a young woman in Scotland at the turn of the 20th century: At the film’s center is Chris (Agyness Deyn), who would like to study in Aberdeen and become a teacher, but also feels as if her life belongs to the countryside. After the death of her parents, she abandons her ambitions so as to keep running the family farm. For the first time in a Terence Davies film, nature plays an important role and becomes a source of strength for the protagonist. The wide openness of the Scottish landscape contrasts with the cramped living spaces and the violence within them. (al)

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